How can a church become a sanctuary—a place where individuals living with mental health challenges feel safe, supported, and a sense of belonging? Throughout the month of October, Sanctuary is exploring this question with our annual Mental Health Awareness Month campaign. To paraphrase Sanctuary Ambassador John Swinton, belonging means being seen, known, and wanted in community. The refrain of belonging could be, ”I’m glad you are here, and you are missed when you’re gone.”
In honour of World Mental Health Day (October 10), we’ve asked members of the Sanctuary team to share their reflections on the theme of belonging. Belonging is a fundamental human need. We each enter this world as helpless infants, entirely dependent on our attachment to and connection with our caregivers for survival. As we mature, the need to belong persists, reflecting the interdependence woven into the very fabric of our being by our Creator—the trinitarian God who made us in his image. For many of us, however, the experience of mental health challenges can create barriers to belonging. As you engage with the contributions below, we invite you to contemplate the connection between mental health and belonging, consider your own experiences, and perhaps engage with the reflection questions at the end either individually or in community.
A few years back a close family friend of ours died. In the process of walking with her as she was letting go of her life and the young family she left behind, I had an epiphany: friendship is literally the most precious commodity in life. Being seen and accepted as we are, with no requirement to perform or conform, is truly a gift that sets us free to love and be loved.
When I think of belonging, I think of this deep friendship that I learned from my friend at the end of her life. It struck me that in this life-or-death setting there was immense clarity and absolutely no pretense. It was as if all façades were stripped away and all that was left were two friends, relinquishing control and conveying a sense of deep gratitude for the gift of life we had each known to that point.
In my desire to create spaces of belonging for myself and others, I find myself having to sacrifice my preconceived ideas of what “should” be, and instead trust what is, however scary or painful that may be. To see beyond the façade and recognize another person as the precious child of God that they are is not always easy, especially in a culture that wants to focus on appearance and performance. To me, this holy recognition speaks of the Christ who sees us and says, “Come to me, this is where you belong.”
For a long time, I thought that my mental health challenges were a barrier to experiencing belonging. During my long, low periods of depression, it was hard to connect with other people—even close friends and family. It took all of my energy to act “normal,” and at the end of the day I had nothing left for myself, much less others. I felt isolated and discouraged.
When I finally started receiving help from a mental health professional, I encountered Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability. Her words empowered me to try dipping my toes in the water and sharing about my experience with a trusted friend. This friend listened to me, asked questions, and supported me, helping me feel seen, known, and cared for as a whole person and not just for the outward-performing parts of me. The more I experienced this belonging with her, the more I felt capable of sharing my story (including my mental health journey) with others—and I noticed that my vulnerability created space for others to be seen and known in the midst of their own journeys. When I rejected the self-stigma that prevented me from sharing in spaces that were safe, I modeled to others that I would not allow stigma to impact my care for them. It didn’t happen overnight, but over the years I’ve seen that rather than my mental health preventing me from experiencing connection, it has been a door through which I can connect with others, receiving and offering belonging.
In my thirty-one years of life, I’ve lived in sixteen homes. Sometimes the move was just a few streets away. Other times it’s been to a whole new country.
When I move somewhere new, I could claim I have enough friends and decide against meeting anyone new. But I don’t. I think belonging can be experienced in our day-to-day life with coworkers, church members, and even exchange students. I could also decide that to make room for these new friends, I should let go of those I knew before. But I don’t. I think belonging can be experienced with those who have known you for decades, despite the distance. I’m still in touch with my grade four bestie, and after ten years of friendship, one dearly loved friend became my fiancé.
It’s not easy to invest in relationships across three continents, and that’s in times of flourishing! In seasons of languishing, I can feel too tired to socialise. When my friends reach out to me, it can feel easier to decline the invitation or the FaceTime call. In times like these, I practice self-compassion and speak to myself the way I know my friends would speak to me.
That’s why I think belonging is a beautiful part of life. It comes through two-sided initiative and commitment. Just as I want to make sure friends know I’m glad they’re in my life and I miss them when we’re apart, I’m grateful for the friends who do the same for me in the midst of life’s ups and downs.
Some years ago, I had the privilege of convening a group of around twenty-five people from across the UK to discuss their experiences of living with long-term mental health challenges while being part of a church. A central theme emerged. Many were uncertain of whether they were truly welcome in their community. After comparing experiences, one participant summarized the conversation: “Many of us feel we’re not fully seen—instead, we’re problems to be fixed or avoided.”
For many of us who live with a mental health challenge, the experience of stigma leaves us feeling that we are the problem. So, how to tackle this as a community? We may need to recognise that a warm welcome is only a starting point when it comes to helping people feel like they belong. As John Swinton says, “to belong is to be missed.” We might hold to the value “all are welcome here,” but do we notice when people are absent and long for them to be present?
In addition to being missed, many of us experience belonging when there is space for our voices to be heard and our gifts to be valued. Communities engaged in cultivating this type of space will want to be mindful of conditions or diagnoses that may require practical accommodations. For example, a friend of mine with the gift of preaching was on the sermon rota, and their church was able to cover their preaching slot if they became unwell.
Finally, communities are dynamic, and this is one reason we encourage people to host The Sanctuary Course regularly. Running the course can help shift a culture of “avoid or fix” and start to dismantle the barriers to creating a true community of belonging.
Recently, my husband and I were part of the leadership team of a small, quirky, and wonderful church community. What drew us in, in part, was the pastor’s openness about his own mental health challenges, which included experiences of depression and psychosis. In sharing his story, he created space for others to talk about their own varied experiences and challenges. The message was clear: this is a safe place to talk about mental health, and you are invited to share your gifts in this community.
Sometimes those gifts were less polished than one might expect in a church service. James served communion every month, though it took longer than it might have otherwise. Sarah, who found it challenging to leave the house but loved feeding people, solicited donations from an Indian restaurant, served everyone a community meal, and then went door to door delivering food to the church neighbours—surprising everyone. Aaron, a young person who is autistic, created and shared a video of his stuffed animals playing the various characters in the Christmas story.
Oftentimes churches are divided into two groups: those who receive ministry and care and those who do the ministering and caring. But we all need the dignity that comes from knowing that we have something to offer other human beings. Part of belonging is being invited to share our gifts.
We invite you to reflect on belonging using the questions below. You may also share these questions with friends, family, or social media using the graphics below.
- When have you experienced a sense of belonging, either with God or in community? How would you describe that experience?
- Has your mental health—whether flourishing or languishing—impacted your experiences of belonging?
- If you are part of a faith community, how does your community intentionally work to create spaces of belonging for people when they are experiencing mental health challenges? Is there anything you’d want to do differently?
Cover photo and graphics designed by Adam Mountstevens